Rashevski?s Tango Explores What Makes Someone Jewish

By Cheryl F. Coon


What makes someone a Jew? Is it being born to a Jewish mother? Is it keeping kosher or observing holidays? Is it possible to be a Jew simply by the force of wanting to be a Jew? These and other thought-provoking questions are explored in this charming and humorous film.

The story begins with a mysterious encounter between two men in a desert in Israel. One, a Frenchman named Dolpho seems excited to see the other, an Orthodox rabbi who responds coldly to him. But we soon learn that they are brothers–brothers who have not seen each other in years and who are meeting now only because Dolpho has come to inform his brother of the imminent death of the rabbi’s former wife, Rosa.

We never meet Rosa, but she is nonetheless a central character in the story. Rosa is remembered by her family for her disdain for religion, but after her death they are surprised to learn that she had purchased a burial site in a Jewish cemetery. As the extended family remembers Rosa, celebrates her life and buries her, they each are engrossed in considering their own connection to Judaism.


The family includes Rosa’s sons, Simon and David, who play chess on the phone together late at night and struggle with their feelings of having been abandoned by their father, who left years ago to become an Orthodox Rabbi in Israel. Simon’s Christian wife Isabelle worries that if Simon–like his mother–chooses to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, then they won’t be able to be buried together. Their daughter Nina wants a Jewish husband, but is hotly pursued by Antoine, who isn’t Jewish but is increasingly intrigued by the idea of conversion. When he does pursue conversion, Nina must come to terms with the fact that, as Isabelle’s daughter, she is not herself considered Jewish in the eyes of many Jews. Finally, David’s son Ric, a former Israeli soldier, is in love with a French Muslim woman who rejects his marriage proposal because of the tension between their communities.

Funny, poignant and tender, this is a film that’s certain to spark conversation. It’s a film about contrasts: the contrast between the two brothers; between the responses of various Holocaust survivors to that central fact in their lives; between those who are born Jewish and those who yearn to identify as Jewish; between different characters’ narratives of what happened in the past. And it’s a film about the healing powers of the tango–Rosa’s legacy to her extended family. In one of the most charming scenes, a family Passover seder explodes in argument and only the tango can bring the participants together and smooth over hurt feelings.

Rashevski’s Tango is a joyful dance, a touching drama and an insightful opportunity for families, different generations, practicing Jews and non-observant Jews, to look at what they believe about their connection to Judaism and what makes them Jews.

This film was shown at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in 2004 and InterfaithFamily.com sponsored it at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2005. Look for it at a Jewish film festival near you.

Rashevski’s Tango, directed by Sam Garbarski. Belgium/France/Luxembourg, 2003, 97 minutes. French and Hebrew with English subtitles.


About Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.